Radicalization of Women in the Western Balkans

Dr. Angelos Kaskanis

Project Manager - Tactics Institute

In the Western Balkans, radicalization has occurred over the last decade primarily in the context of militant Salafism, which has been most rapidly adopted in regional countries marred by fragile internal dysfunctionality, administrative chaos, conflict areas, and problematic identity and governance matters.

Women are often considered the Backbone of Society. It is crucial to safeguard them, as they are the ones that have traditionally managed the family affairs in the region. The new coronavirus (COVID-19) is going to increase the social gap and further introduce inequalities into vulnerable groups.


Many Islamic religious buildings were damaged or destroyed in the 90s and the 00s in several wars and conflicts. Some are rebuilt with the aid of funds from the Gulf States in exchange for influence.

With the funds’ community leaders, imams, educators, and others arrived in the region spreading the ideology and creating networks that thrive till today.

In recent years, despite the focus on militant Salafism and foreign fighting, there have been new forms of extremism in the region, including non-violent Salafism, ethnonational movements, and a neo-anti-Western right, mostly inspired by malignant foreign influences.

Moreover, since the early 1990s, the region has shown corruption and incompetence, and especially a dysfunctional public administration, political and economical instability, nepotism, and high unemployment rates.

Interestingly enough the decision to join radical groups is mainly based on the desire to meet immediate psychosocial needs, rather than by extremist or violent ideologies. It is common that such groups attempt to exploit the psychosocial gaps of individuals with a rough life background and to fill in the void with a dynamic sense of belonging, inclusion, equality, dignity, and purpose.

State Failure and the Salafi Narrative

The Salafi narrative is taking advantage of common trends to Western Balkan societies[1], including endemic corruption, widespread nepotism and clientelism, a lack of political accountability and transparency, and well-established crime networks. These state and societal failures are interpreted by ideologues as evidence that, without Divine order and absolute obedience to God, humans are incapable of creating and maintaining just and functioning societies.

The demographics of the Western Balkans foreign fighters indicated that they were disadvantaged individuals, often suffering from underlying psychosocial and mental health issues, and coming from low-income families, with little education or marketable skills. More than one-third already had criminal records before departure. More than one-quarter have been part of the Western Balkans diasporas, typically residing, working, and/or spending time in German-speaking countries.

For women, poverty, family conflict, and prior trauma have been the major reasons for being radicalized.

While many women followed their husbands to ISIL out of fear of emotional or financial abandonment, most of them, except a very few women, claimed that they were aware of where they were heading while leaving their home countries for ISIL territory—little they know though both men and women of how bad it would be.

Foreign women[2] that traveled to the Middle East tended to be motivated by the desire to pursue an Islamic identity, which many felt was not possible in their home countries due to harassment and discrimination. Another motivating factor for European women was their attachment to their families, such as their parents or husbands.

The latter reason is one of the most common and expected influences along with the Internet recruiters. Women seem to have a greater tendency to make decisions on the grounds of maintaining relationships, particularly with their parents and spouses.

The ones that survived ISIS

The vast majority of female returnees have shown undeniable signs, of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, frequent panic attacks, depression, and sleep deprivation.

In addition to undergoing individual and group psychotherapy, both in Kosovo and BiH, a significant number of female returnees have been prescribed antidepressants and anxiolytics (anti-anxiety drugs) to help them deal with these mental health issues.

Some female returnees expressed fear from the stigmatization of both themselves (as many still wear a full niqab) and their children. The initial psychotherapy also established that some women have suffered multiple traumas, as they survived the ordeal of the wars of Yugoslav succession (1991-2001).

Some were orphaned or lost a parent (typically fathers). Further trauma ensued once they reached conflict zones in Syria and Iraq – frequent bombardments, airstrikes, loss of family members (husbands and children), detention, and life in camps, but also the uncertainties linked to their deportations back to the region and prospects of indictment and incarceration).

For women, in general, it is critical to assess the varying levels of individual agency based on their unique circumstances of joining, the plurality of their roles in the group, and whether they possibly continued supporting for, or disowning of, the group.

There are two major factors[3] to take into account while assessing the risk that some women may pose, such as security issues and the possibility of radicalizing others. Despite the challenges that may occur, all actions taken should be legally taking into consideration the respective human rights, allowing access to fair trials and gender-conscious rehabilitation and reintegration programs.

What about Europe?

Last month the French Security Forces in southern France have arrested four women and a girl as part of an anti-terrorist investigation into a suspected attack plot targeting the city of Montpellier.

Two weeks after the arrests the French government unveiled a new counterterrorism and intelligence bill aiming at better-preventing attacks, notably via greater surveillance of extremist websites. One measure that will extend the use by French intelligence services of algorithms to track down extremists online, a method already being trialed since 2015 to monitor messaging apps.

It turns out there’s no standard profile[4] for girls. Many are converts, others were raised by non-practicing Muslim families but later radicalized. Some grew up in wealthy areas around Paris, others in small towns near [the central town of] Tours, or Nice [in the south of France]. They aren’t just girls from poor neighborhoods. Whether they’re in Syria, have returned to France, or have attempted to leave, they could all be our sisters, our cousins, or childhood friends.

In Belgium, there were cases that young women shared their decision with their parents to travel to the Middle East, but were not taken seriously. They were spending most of their time connected to several media platforms, chatting with distant individuals that have never met. In addition to this, they were dressed in a niqab, were surrounded by like-minded people, and became increasingly alienated from their family.

More than 100 British women traveled to the Middle East for several reasons. The radicalization psychology includes a sense of “sisterhood”, a satisfying fulfillment to be part of the state-building effort of Isis, or to join something “bigger and divine”.

The experience of visiting the aforementioned caliphate was revealing of a “true and pure Islamic life” for some of them, while others emphasize their feelings of social exclusion and/or discrimination.

Tackling Radicalisation in the region

It is estimated that about 1,000 Foreign Terrorist Fighters (FTF) from WB have traveled to Syria and Iraq, with a higher proportion of families and single women (as compared with other countries of origin).

In the context of religious radicalization, one of the blurry lines that must be considered by those seeking to prevent or counter-extremism lies between democratic religious rights and freedoms on one side and, on the other, an understanding that any person who is radicalized into violence was once non-violent.

The lack of prior religious knowledge among radicalized individuals was noted among foreign fighters and their family members throughout the region, suggesting that a shallow understanding of religion could result in making one vulnerable to radicalizing stakeholders who use reductionism in the name of piety.

Some analysts have called the ideology promoted by Salafi extremists a “pseudo-theology” that “distills concepts to their least complex form,” and have called for religious counter-messaging to educate citizens in the region about the complexities and nuances of Islamic practice.

Publicly, extreme Islamists tend to keep a low profile. Overall, they have reduced activity in the political sphere. The role of some NGOs in promoting radical views is not insignificant, while the Western Balkansremains a route for terrorists traveling from Syria/Iraq to Western Europe.

Despite significant results in understanding the factors underlying and enabling radicalization, and Violent Extremism, in the Western Balkan, there is a clear need to diagnose the problems and to prevent them. Therefore, it is crucial to put more effort into a comprehensive, and coordinated effective prevention method.

A better understanding of the phenomena is a precondition for effective work on preventing and countering them. Hence there is a need for research-based policy development that could help in target communities and individuals that are more easily susceptible to radicalization, and equip these with effective tools.


[1] Peter Neumann (2017). “Foreword” in Between Salvation and Terror: Radicalization and the Foreign Fighter Phenomenon in the Western Balkans, ed., Vlado Azinović. Page 7.

[2] For more on this, see Anne Speckhard and Molly Ellenberg (2020). “ISIS in Their Own Words: Recruitment History, Motivations for Joining, Travel, Experiences in ISIS, and Disillusionment over Time – Analysis of 220 In-depth Interviews of ISIS Returnees, Defectors and Prisoners.” Journal of Strategic Security 13, no. 1. Pages 82-127.

[3] For more on this, see van de Weert, A., Eijkman (2020). Q.A. Early detection of extremism? The local security professional on assessment of potential threats posed by youth. Crime Law Soc Change 73. Pages 491–507.

[4] From the Book “A Scent of Jihad”.

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